There is no doubt that, if you are a child, your favorite part of the Passover Seder is related to the Afikoman. Technically speaking, Afikoman is not a very Jewish word. Like Karpas – which is Greek for fresh raw vegetables or for what we define as hors d’ouvres – Afikoman is one of those terms that remind us that the Passover Seder was a spin-off of the Greco-Roman symposium, the Hellenistic drinking party where men came to debate, plot, and boast with each other.
The Mishna (Pesachim 10:8) teaches us that “Ayin Maftirin Ahar Afikoman,” which means that after eating the Passover offering, you couldn’t add an Afikoman. In the Greco-Roman tradition, after you were done with your meal, you would go on your way to other people’s homes to keep drinking and schmoozing with them. In Greek, that tradition gets the name of Epi Komon, or the “procession that comes after.” But our Sages didn’t want us to treat the Passover Seder lightly, so they forbade us from going from party to party all around the neighborhood.
Once the Temple was destroyed, the Afikoman was transformed into the matza dessert that we eat at the end of the meal. The idea was to go to bed with the taste of the bread of affliction. Our sages were telling us that, after the big meal is over, the flavors of the Seder should keep us grounded. Pesach is about liberty, not about licentiousness; it is about strengthening freedom, not about falling into debauchery.
The Mishna (Pesachim 10:4) also teaches us that, when retelling the Passover story, we must begin by acknowledging the Gnut, the shame, or the discomforting parts of who we are. And maybe that’s why the Afikoman is connected with the Yachatz, that step at the beginning of the Seder where we break the middle matza in two parts. The journey to our personal liberation begins with the recognition of our inner brokenness. By the end of the meal, we come full circle as we finally reunite ourselves with that part of ourselves that is broken (and many times hidden), but none of that can happen if we do not acknowledge that basic truth. We all carry cracks, dents, sorrows and pains, and Pesach is not about forgetting them, but about integrating them. We begin by recognizing our inner brokenness, and out of that recognition, as the Seder unfolds, we hope to make sense of the many pieces that make us who we are, as we try to get out of the bitterness of our own personal Egypt. According to Judaism, recognizing our inner frailty is not a sign of weakness but a symbol of utter strength.
However, none of that is so easy to accomplish. Perhaps, that’s one of the reasons we hide the Afikoman right after we break the matza. We would love to pretend that the broken pieces are nowhere to be found, that they are not there. We would love to bury our feelings, to numb our pain, and to pretend that we are just fine. And maybe that’s why eating the Afikoman gets the name of Tzafun, which is Hebrew for hidden. It seems as if the Seder is looking to teach us that there’s no freedom, that there’s no real exodus from Egypt, if we don’t face some of those things that, at times, we would rather hide.
At the same time, “Afikoman,” as Rabbi Ed Feinstein explains, “is all that is hidden in the world that is still possible for us. It’s all that we ought to go and look for in the world to give us a sense of purpose and meaning in life.” The Afikoman, in other words, embodies all those feelings that we carry deep inside our souls, feelings that could help us and nurture us in times of trouble and pain.
So… Think about what you felt the first time you kissed someone you love. Think about what you felt under the chuppah. All that love, and those promises; all the excitement and big expectations. Think about the birth of your children. Or the births of your nephews or nieces. Or when your own kids became parents and you became a grandfather or grandmother. Try to remember the happiness and the fear, the sense of fullness while holding that baby for the first time in your arms. Think about the moment you graduated from college. Or about the day you got your diploma. Or about the moment you got your first job. Think about buying your first car, your first home, or a new studio. Try to remember the reasons that make you kvell, those fleeting moments when you believed with all your soul that you were able to touch the sky with your fingertips. The hug of a friend, the happy tears of your lover, the laughter of your children.
Afikoman is about getting back in touch with all of those feelings when we feel sad, or lost, or unable to find a sense of meaning in our lives. Afikoman is about remembering that the joy, the love, the pride, the happiness and the holiness that we felt in the past are still hidden within ourselves, that they are not gone, that they can become our strength as we find our way out of sorrow. To those who are in pain, the Afikoman is an invitation to taste resilience. To them, the Afikoman is a whispering voice saying: “You can get back on your feet.”
And to those who are in a good place, to those who are satisfied with what is going on around them, the Afikoman asks them to remember times of loss and moments of distress. To think about the deep anxiety we all feel when we see our children sick and to recollect the void we all feel as a loved one leaves this world. The Afikoman, in this context, becomes then an invitation to connect, through our own personal feelings, with the pain of others, with the fear and sadness of others, and to try to help them in their journeys, as they are struggling with life at this particular moment. If we can recognize those feelings within ourselves, if we can uncover what is hidden very deep in our own souls, maybe we will be able to understand the pain of friends and loved ones dealing with depression and maybe we will be able to be there for them as they walk through their own valley of shadows. If we have the strength to let those feelings come to the surface, it will be easier for us to tell those surrounding us: “You are not alone, and I’m here for you.”
During Pesach we go from recognizing our inner brokenness to reconnecting with some of the feelings that are hidden within ourselves. We transform our Gnut, our discomfort, into the cornerstone of our Shebach, of our glory and our salvation. And we do that together. When we are down, we are called to rediscover the joy that is hidden in our hearts, and when we are up, we are summoned to remember our own sorrows hoping to help ease other people’s pains. And we do that because it is through discovering what is concealed that we can embrace the idea that redemption is already here, if we only dare to make it happen. Maybe, just maybe, that’s one of the reasons Pesach always falls during spring: The seed of redemption has already been planted, and if we commit ourselves to nurture it, to shield it and to care for it, that seed with become a Tree of Life.